India-US N-Deal: Was a Deep N-Game at Play in India’s Containment?

At the controversial core of the India-US nuclear deal is the intent. The context was the emerging geopolitics of China’s “peaceful rise” and the need to stop it from dominating Asia.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s BJP government sought technology and American capital.
There was no need for India to negotiate in the nuclear realm at all.
The US counter-bait was to supposedly build India as a balancer to China.
The secret aim was to divert India from the plutonium path and into energy dependency.

The Atal Bihari Vajpayee BJP government wanted to seek technology and American capital. The bait was the “voluntary (testing) moratorium”, announced after the May 1998 Shakti tests, notwithstanding a fizzled thermonuclear device that cried out for more testing.

The US government rose to it in the belief that more could be extracted from New Delhi in furtherance of Washington’s long-held non-proliferation objective – the great constant of American foreign policy since the 1974 test – of “capping, freezing, and rolling back” the Indian nuclear weapons capability.

So with the rapprochement rooted in geopolitics and realpolitik, and not in any sentimental nonsense about shared democratic values, there was no need for India to negotiate in the nuclear realm at all, leave alone make concessions and compromises.

But the Jaswant Singh-Strobe Talbott “strategic dialogue” set the ball rolling. However, it took the agency of the “Accidental Prime Minister” – Manmohan Singh, to put wheels under Washington’s multi-pronged policy to contain India’s nuclear weapons programme but also – and this was the counter-bait New Delhi jumped at – to supposedly build India as a balancer to China.

The sale of reactors – run on imported highly-enriched uranium – to India to revive a comatose US nuclear industry was a bonus, but its secret aim was to divert India from the plutonium path and into energy dependency. This was a deep game that entirely escaped the strategically challenged Manmohan Singh regime, uplifted by the prospects of US’s help to make India a “major power” and by “20,000 MW by 2020” to spur economic growth.

But back up a bit.

Why was diverting India from the plutonium route critical? Based on India’s easily accessible reserves of thorium – the world’s largest – the nuclear visionary Homi J Bhabha articulated a three-stage interlocking plan in 1955 for energy self-sufficiency. The first stage had natural uranium fuelled reactors to provide the feedstock for the second-stage breeder reactors to, in turn, have its output fire up thorium reactors in the final stage.

The beauty of the Bhabha Plan is that the first and second stages yield weapons-grade plutonium (WgPu). It was an unnerving prospect for the US to imagine an India with limitless energy and weapons material! Bhabha acquired the NRX (so-called CANDU) reactor from Canada. New Delhi thereafter only needed to have its eye on the ball, keep investing in the development of the breeder and thorium reactors, in order to now have neared the desired end-state.

Alas, no Indian PM had the requisite vision and the will, and the nuclear energy programme floundered. The momentum from Bhabha’s time carried the country to where the 500 MW breeder reactor is ready for commissioning in Kalpakkam.

But New Delhi has not found the money to upscale the 40MW experimental thorium reactor “Kamini” or to otherwise implement the Bhabha-Plan on a war-footing, but has tens of billions of dollars to spare for wasteful spends, such as on a 4-plus generation Rafale combat aircraft.

And no Indian PM has had the “long view” and guts to try and bring down the oppressive non-proliferation treaty system targeting India by selling the 220 MW CANDU-derivative, the INDU workhorse reactor, to any country with the cash, and to secure the necessary natural uranium from strip-mining reserves in Manipur mountains (and arresting foreign-funded eco-NGO protestors) and from Niger and Gabon.

Besides, creating its own nuclear market in the Third World – India didn’t have to be a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) to sell indigenously produced nuclear goods – New Delhi would have had the West, espying a non-proliferation system breakdown, pleading for mercy. That’s how a country gains respect and leverage. Ask China!

Except in Manmohan Singh, India found a sap and Washington a sucker. For a pat on the back for leading a “responsible” state – whatever that is – he shifted most of the CANDU reactors into the international safeguards net, thereby stuffing the country’s capacity for surge WgPu production, and decommissioned the 40 MW Cirus reactor before the second military-dedicated 100MW plutonium producer came on stream.

All those who were excited about the nuclear deal — the government, the Indian policy establishment and the media — never wondered why, despite having met all conditions, India has not been conferred “the rights and privileges” of a nuclear weapons state and membership of the NSG as was promised in the July 2005 joint statement between Manmohan Singh and George W Bush.

Would an India armed with proven thermonuclear weapons be more credibly balanced than China?
Published in ‘The Quint’, July 20, 2015; at

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in Asian geopolitics, China, China military, Culture, domestic politics, Geopolitics, Great Power imperatives, India's strategic thinking and policy, Nuclear Policy & Strategy, nuclear power, Nuclear Weapons, society, South Asia, Strategic Relations with the US & West, United States, US., Weapons. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to India-US N-Deal: Was a Deep N-Game at Play in India’s Containment?

  1. Shaurya says:

    Here is the problem with the opposition to the nuclear deal. I believe there was only one person – Arun Shourie in the entire BJP, who had an understanding of the strategic game being played by the US. The rest in the BJP were essentially playing a political game of being the opposition along with the left. The opposition had no chance to explain this to the electorate, which understood only one thing that this deal was about electricity. The electorate was largely lost on what was the BJP really opposing. Explaining strategic games to a mass and diverse electorate, that did not get the message of 26/11 in Mumbai let alone a strategic compromise, is well nigh impossible.

    Hence the BJP did the next best thing in opposition by inserting poison pills by way of the liability bill but even that has been unilaterally diluted through fraudulent interpretations by the Modi Govt.

    My point is, our political leadership by and large lacks the strategic mindset to understand, let alone play this game. Having said all that, I still like Vajpayee for making the strategic call to test, even if we can fault him or the advise of (BM/KC) for the unilateral moratorium.

    I have very little to no hopes of ANY strategic moves by the Modi administration as it does not have any political dividends, only liabilities. Au contraire, I fear that Modi will concede too much to the US, especially giving in to US strategic plans in the naval domain towards a 1000 ship naval alliance.

  2. ~!@#$%^&*()_+ says:

    1) Prior to the Chinese tests both kinds of assessments were allowed to float around – one saying Chinese can and others saying Chinese can’t. Both sides well entrenched.

    2) To this day the American intel reports FOIA-ed say nothing about how the U-235 was obtained. Obviously the Chinese will never say anything. Coincidentally, Chinese have enough maal to conduct 4 tests in less than an year. Chinese apparently did say ‘thanks’ to the Soviets. Soviets in turn claim that till 59 they had given only basic machinery for the fissile material generation.

    3) There already was murmur right after the first Chinese tests, of allowing China to sport some deterrence and have it directed towards Soviets.

    4) Gilpatric Committee comes in 1964 and changes everything and explicitly states to the effect that Nukes in Indian hands are against the US interests and roll back blah blah.

    5) Soviets are allowed to believe that the Americans are against Chinese nukes.

    6) Just after the Chinese tests the Sino-Soviet war starts.

    7) LBS and Bhabha both sound out the Americans and both die within a month of each other.

    Lesson –
    1) Always makes sense to be the first mover else you remain behind and get treated like a threat as was the case with Indian Nukes. All others will gang up to put you in the dog house.
    2) Beware of the ‘friends’. They may betray you. And they may have the long term memory to serve that very purpose.

    • ~!@#$%^&*()_+ says:

      One correction – #2 – Chinese did 4 in less than 2 years. But somehow the tap is full on despite the Soviets having pulled back from the program.

      (A) 16 October 1964 = 22 KT
      (B) 14 May 1965 = 35 KT
      (C) 9 May 1966 = 250 KT
      (D) 27 October 1966 = 12 KT.
      (E) 28 December 1966 = 300 KT

      After that its formal staged TN. So they have enough maal on tap for such a large number of tests.

  3. Breanna says:

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